Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) Blu-ray Review: Another Kind of San Francisco Treat

Alan Ladd leaves his heart in San Francisco in this glorious re-discovery from the Warner Archive Collection.
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Made back when one could still refer to San Francisco as "Frisco" and not catch hell for it, Frank Tuttle's Hell on Frisco Bay is one of several film (noir) adaptations based on the literary work of William P. McGivern (The Big Heat). Filmed (partly) on location in and around California's iconic Bay Area city, the vehicle finds Alan Ladd as a hardened, disgraced former police detective recently released from San Quentin after serving time for a bogus murder charge.

As if starting over wasn't a cumbersome ordeal to begin with, contending with the fact everyone on both sides of the law loathes you tends to leave even less room for one to comfortably extract their revenge. Fortunately for Alan Ladd, he personally acquired the rights to McGivern's story himself through his own production company so that he could have something to star in. So don't be too many obstacles. Also, don't expect any unnecessary romantic subplots here, since Ladd regularly ignores his on-screen wife Joanne Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) on account that she was unfaithful to him during his stint in prison.

Instead, prepare yourself for a marvelous CinemaScope Warnercolor look at classic mid '50s San Fran as the doughy little Ladd ‒ ever determined to force audiences to take him seriously a goes toe-to-toe against his excellently cast nemesis for this flick, Edward G. Robinson. Ironically enough, Robinson and the very sort of rapid-firing verbal abuse he is still so well known for are the top two things that make Hell on Frisco Bay worth watching, leaving poor Alan Ladd out in the foggy cold. (One wonders how the picture's outcome might have been had Ladd's initial pick for the villain, James Cagney, had worked out. But we're glad we have what we have.)

Efficiently directed by Tuttle ‒ a former member of the Communist Party who sold everyone out to Senator McCarthy during the HUAC witch hunt of the '50s, and who also made Ladd a star in 1942 with This Gun for HireHell on Frisco Bay also features a host of familiar faces from classic film, movie serials, and TV shows. William Demarest (My Three Sons) plays Ladd's only friend from his former life. Cinematic villain extraordinaire Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane, Kiss Me Deadly) plays a gangster alongside Star Trek guest star favorite Stanley Adams (Black Patch) as ‒ you guessed it ‒ baddies.

Also appearing in this widescreen color throwback to Warner's classic gangster pictures are the likes of former screen queen Fay Wray, Creature from the Black Lagoon co-stars Perry Lopez and Nestor Paiva, Zorro actors Anthony Caruso and George J. Lewis, and a little-known newbie named Rod Taylor. It's quite the enviable ensemble of character actors, all wrapped up into one little forgotten gem.

For years, Hell on Frisco Bay was about as easy to find in its original unaltered form as was a Bay City resident who didn't mind hearing "Frisco" ‒ owing to a slew of legal entanglements, a lost negative, and probably just about everything else that could go wrong. During that time, the only prints on-hand were of the dreaded pan-and-scan broadcast quality kind. Thankfully, the Warner Archive Collection had the dumb luck to stumble across the original camera negative and ‒ following a little restoration ‒ have made this nearly lost crime drama available to digital home video for the first time.

Scanned in 4K for this Blu-ray release, Hell on Frisco Bay is presented in its intended 2.55:1 aspect ratio, and the resulting MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is nothing short of perfect. An equally impressive DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack is included, as are English (SDH) subtitles. The original theatrical trailer is offered up as the lone special feature for this film, but don't you dare let the lack of supplemental material dissuade you from enjoying this fun little gangster picture from yesteryear ‒ or else Alan Ladd may come back from the world beyond to seek his vengeance on you.


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